FOR THE longest time after Robert Ethan Saylor was killed — dragged from his seat at a movie by three off-duty sheriff’s deputies, wrestled to the ground and, his larynx fractured, extinguished by asphyxia — nothing resembling justice looked possible for the 26-year-old man with Down syndrome. The sheriff in Frederick County, Md., where the incident took place in 2013, said his deputies’ conduct was beyond reproach. An internal investigation cleared them; a grand jury declined to indict them.
Now, at last, there has been a reckoning of sorts: a $1.9 million settlement in a civil suit brought by Mr. Saylor’s family that exposed the horrible costs of poor training for law enforcement officials who encounter people with disabilities. There can be no real “closure” in such a senseless death, but there can be lessons learned, and in this case there have been.
The incident itself is painful to recall. Mr. Saylor’s “offense” was to slip back into the theater where he had just watched “Zero Dark Thirty,” to watch it again, without paying for another ticket. The theater manager alerted security officers — three off-duty sheriff’s deputies — in the mall where the theater was located. Before they intervened, Mr. Saylor’s young caretaker, who had stepped out briefly to get her car, tried to dissuade the deputies, warning them that the young man, who weighed nearly 300 pounds, would “freak out” if he were touched.
The deputies ignored her, a brief struggle ensued, and Mr. Saylor stopped breathing. His death was ruled a homicide.
The deputies’ lack of judgment is undeniable — sound policing emphasizes de-escalation; they chose the opposite tack. So is the imprudence of allowing law enforcement officers to moonlight as private security guards, which may compel them to do management’s bidding, good police practice notwithstanding.
In the civil suit brought by Mr. Saylor’s family, neither the deputies, nor the state, nor the management company for the mall admitted liability. But the settlement speaks for itself. The deputies agreed to pay $800,000; the state of Maryland $645,000; and Hill Management, which managed the Westview Promenade shopping center, where the incident took place, $455,000.
Well before the terms were announced, the outrage generated by Mr. Saylor’s death yielded an even richer outcome, for the public. About a year later, Frederick County’s sheriff’s office adopted a new training program for deputies, focusing on individuals with mental disabilities — specifically, those with IQs below 70. Maryland followed suit, modifying training for all its law enforcement officers.
There is no denying that Mr. Saylor’s death was needless and unwarranted. However, it’s fair to hope that his legacy may be that further such incidents are far less likely.